That’s Why They Call It Work

I remember when my darlings graduated from college and got jobs. Within a year of each hiring, I received at least one phone call from each. The calls were about how hard working was. My standard issue reply was, “That’s why they call it work.”

For me, writing is a pleasure and to a degree therapy, which, when done well, is also a form of pleasure. However, unless one is writing for oneself or writing things to be left to children and grandchildren, wife or another special person, there is another part of writing that is not pleasure. It is work, hard word. And every writer, agent, and publisher I’ve read agrees. It is the publishing and marketing end of writing.

Once something is written, if it is for a market it is the author’s job to fix on what that market is. No matter the market, the work must be letter perfect, an apt expression for this endeavor. That means it must be edited. That means often-times the author reads, re-reads, and re-reads again his/her own work. Believe me no matter how much you think of your own writing, reading 20 or so chapters three or four times is at best sobering and at worst self-denigrating. The first few go-rounds you find the big mistakes. A paragraph doesn’t say what you thought it did.  A paragraph says what you want it to say, but it says it in the wrong place. A sentence is a grammatical disaster a word is misspelled beyond recognition the list can be dishearteningly long.

Approaching the point where you wished you were legally blind or sure you would become so, you now hire someone to do professionally what you’ve just finished doing. There are editors for copy and editors for content; one of them finds all the typos and grammatical graveyards still left in your masterpiece, the other sees to it that the content makes more sense to others–sort of the way you thought it made sense to you. By the way, this costs money.

At this juncture you should now have a book that would get an A from the teacher, one with a title, preface, acknowledgments, table of contents, content, front and back cover and jacket notes. Now one is ready to go out into the world and find someone that can be as convinced as you are that others, many others, want to read this book. “How does one do this?” you may well ask. You’d better because it is the next step, which requires writing two more pieces.  These can make you or break you before anyone has even thought about reading your manuscript. The first is the query letter; the second is the outline.

The query letter, as the name suggests, asks the agent or publisher if he/she would like to read your manuscript. Easy you think? “Just do it!” as Nike says. “Hold on there, young fella,” as the cowboys used to say. There’s an industry standard. It is one page, double-spaced, to include your inside address, salutations, and sign off. You’ve just polished off 250 or more pages and now in one page… it’s murder.

If the letter is good enough, you might get a request for an outline. The outline usually includes the table of contents, a few chapters, and the answers to questions such as, “What other books on the market are like yours?” “Why do you think people will want to read yours?” This means you have to find other books like yours, research them to see if people actually read them, put all that down on paper, and then make a case for why yours should be added to the list. And you better write this as perfectly as you’ve written your content.

Next step, take something like “Market Digest” that lists every agent and publisher currently working and of good repute. Why an agent? Because some publishers will only accept from agents. Then again some won’t. The Market Digest tells you if target #1 is accepting work, what category of work they are looking for and how they want to be approached.

For the book I’m working on I scoured about 300 possibilities. I narrowed the list down to about 3 dozen places that seemed like a match for what I’d written. Now I turn to the web and go on each of these 3 dozen websites for an expanded explanation of what they are looking for. That will probably cut my list in half. In that half, I have to find the agent whose portfolio most matches my category of work and reach out in whatever manner Market Digest tells me to: query letter, cover letter with outline, specs for being read, sent by email, accepted only by snail mail and so on.

Now comes the real work. Waiting. One needs thick skin. The process is like applying to college, only worse. The acceptance rate is a lot lower. Sometimes there isn’t even a “no” there’s just nothing, forever. Eventually, you get the hint. Sometimes it’s a form rejection. Sometimes it’s a personal “close but no cigar” letter. Sometimes the firm or agent is kind enough to tell you upfront, “If you haven’t heard from us in three weeks or 3 months, you’re not going to–so don’t write back wondering why you haven’t heard from us.” Unfortunately, I can’t tell you yet what an acceptance letter says, but I’d think for the novice writer its receipt evokes the same emotion as the college acceptance letter.

This is the mountain one climbs at the top of which hopefully one finds an agent or publisher. There is also the E-press, the press that produces more books than any other bar none. Think Amazon or Barnes and Noble, Kindle and Nook. This isn’t your father or mother’s “vanity press.” There’s no charge, but all the steps are pretty much the same including that the product has to be just as good. One attractive difference is that the wait time is shorter and the acceptance rate is higher. On the other hand, your book turns you into a company of one. While most e-publishers do wide distributions to various outlets, beyond that you are chief cook and bottle-washer when it comes to marketing the book. Suffice it to say that shelves full of books have been written about marketing an e-book.

In my previous blog I mentioned Neil Simon. At the end of his letter which was filled with “don’t’s” and pitfalls, and stories of blood, sweat, and tears, he said no one should be a writer. In his last line he wrote, “And if you are dissuaded by all this, you too shouldn’t be a writer.

I wasn’t, so I am–sort of.

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